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Old 10-02-09, 06:11 PM   #1
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Post Soldier gets 3-year prison term for kidnap hoax (AP)

AP - A Fort Hood soldier who tried to fake his kidnapping by a Mexican drug cartel after he went AWOL was sentenced Friday to three years in prison and dishonorably discharged.

As part of a deal in which Pfc. James Andrew Gonzalez pleaded guilty to desertion, violating a general order and obstruction of justice charges, a military judge instead of a jury decided his sentence.

The plea agreement also guaranteed Gonzalez the lesser of two sentences — the three-year term or the judge's recommendation, which was five years. The judge, Col. Gregory Gross, also sentenced Gonzalez to a dishonorable discharge, the most severe discharge; reduced his rank to the lowest in the military, a private; and ordered Gonzalez's pay and benefits stopped.

Gonzalez could have been sentenced to more than 22 years confinement.

During a court-martial that lasted more than four hours, Gonzalez told the judge that he went into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in July after a three-day pass to attend a court hearing in Corpus Christi. Gonzalez said he had no intention of returning to the Army, so he sent a text message to a soldier demanding $100,000 and the removal of border security, claiming to be a Mexican drug cartel member who had kidnapped Gonzalez.

"I made my family worried for me," Gonzalez told Gross during the trial at the central Texas Army post. "It was that kind of behavior that made the public think poorly of the armed forces."

He was captured unharmed 10 days later after a massive search involving several state and federal agencies.

Andrew Del Valle, an FBI special agent in Laredo, said Gonzalez's hoax had long-term effects because some in the community had become too fearful to cooperate because they mistakenly believed the Mexican drug cartel had become even more powerful and started to kidnap law enforcement agents and military personnel.

Matthew Womble, another FBI special agent in Laredo, said agents had to stop working on other cases to devote time to finding Gonzalez.

"Border violence is very real, so it's unfortunate that people exploit that to their own means," Womble said.

Gonzalez never said why he fled, but at the time he faced military charges of impersonating a commissioned officer and wearing unauthorized insignia. Gonzalez told the judge he wore an Army Rangers patch and Special Forces tab on his uniform at two February court appearances in Corpus Christi and told the court he was a military attorney, trying to get favorable treatment.

Gonzalez had been in Nueces County court facing misdemeanor charges stemming from an argument with his girlfriend, but that was not part of his military trial.

On Friday, Gonzalez pleaded guilty to those military charges. He also pleaded guilty to a third count of impersonating a commissioned officer, stemming from a November incident in which he called someone from his hometown and tried to impress him by saying he was a higher-ranking officer.

He also pleaded guilty to making false statements, stemming from a May incident in which he lied about moving so he could avoid an assignment; and two counts of failure to appear at a place of duty, stemming from skipping two required events in the spring.

After each charge was read, Gonzalez read a statement explaining why he committed the offenses and expressing remorse.

His mother Rosa Gonzalez, of Robstown, testified he enlisted in the Army in the spring of 2008, about four months after his father died suddenly on Christmas Eve. She said his father's death was "a terrible blow" and she was shocked when her son enlisted because he had been doing well in college.

His military defense attorney, Capt. Jocelyn Stewart, read his unsworn statement, a way of testifying in which a defendant cannot be cross-examined.

The statement said Gonzalez had "acted like a child" and had been "caught up in a web of lies and deceit." But he said he had been thinking about his life while confined since July and felt he could understand his self-loathing better with time and counseling.


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